Kovacevic competes in Challenger, Illinois persists in singles play to sweep Purdue

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior Aleks Kovacevic eyes the ball during an outside match. Kovacevic recently made it to the semifinals in the Association of Tennis Professionals Cleveland Challenger this weekend. On Sunday, the Illinois men’s tennis team also defeated Purdue 6-1.

By Enji Erdenekhuyag, Staff Writer

After a great display of determination during the 6-1 road win against Purdue, the No. 9 Illinois men’s tennis team achieved its sixth consecutive victory of the season.

The Illini originally were supposed to play at Indiana on Friday, but the match was delayed and then postponed due to COVID-19 protocols. The two teams will work with the Big Ten to reschedule it for a later date. Without the match, head coach Brad Dancer was able to get the guys to work harder in practice for the Boilermakers by running player simulations, working on doubles partners and honing in on the small details of outdoor play.

“It was our first solely outdoor practice on Saturday, so (we were) just looking at wind situations and other sun configurations — just things we haven’t been dealing with for a few months: sun and wind,” Dancer said.

Although, the whole team wasn’t able to step out on the courts on Friday, Aleks Kovacevic completed his run in the Association of Tennis Professionals Cleveland Challenger. Being one of Illinois’ top players, Kovacevic entered the competition March 14 as a qualifier and advanced by defeating the eighth and third seeds.

Kovacevic played his way through the main draw into the quarterfinals and competed in his first career challenger semifinals. In the semifinals, he battled but lost (6-3, 2-6, 6-1) to Bjorn Fratangelo, a top 300 player who later won the final. Illinois looks forward to welcoming Kovacevic back after his commendable performance at Cleveland.

“That was a fantastic week for him,” Dancer said. “We were all really excited for him. For him, that’s the best result he’s ever had at a professional event so we wanted him to be able to have experiences and opportunities like that because that’s kinda what our program’s about, continuing to help guide guys grow towards that next level.”

When Sunday rolled around, the Illini started the Purdue match off with doubles play in which Alex Brown and Zeke Clark got the momentum going for the team on the first court. The duo finished 6-3, which polished their partner record to 6-0 for the season. To secure the doubles point, Siphosothando Montsi and Noe Khlif also beat the Boilermakers 6-3.

Purdue picked up their lone singles win late on court six where Kweisi Kenyatte lost in a third set tiebreaker (4-6, 6-4, 10-4). Before that, Monsti, who remains undefeated in singles competition with ten straight wins, delivered two sets both scored at 6-2. Hunter Heck also dominated his match, sweeping his opponent 6-0, 6-0.

“Hunter is a great player,” Dancer said. “He’s a freshman so he’s got all the ups and downs of a freshman … He’s getting stronger everyday physically; he’s getting stronger everyday mentally. That was another day in Hunter doing the right things and when he does the right things, I think he’s a great player.”

The next couple of matches ended with more of a push from Purdue. Khlif breezed through his first set 6-3, but his second set entered into a lengthy tiebreaker ending with him ultimately breaking through to secure the point 7-6 (2). Clark’s three-set match ended in a back-and-forth fashion, with him coming out on top at 6-3, 6-7 (4), 11-9.

The final match was another hard-fought battle between Illinois and Purdue. On the second court, Brown dropped his first set 2-6, but he refused to settle into the scoring slump. Regaining his focus, he bounced back to take the second (6-4) and third set (6-4) with an intense display of his serves and returns.

“I felt like he outplayed the guy in the second set … so the third set (I) was really just kinda saying ‘hey, you don’t need to change a thing; just make sure you’re concentrating’ because I think he had some lapses in the first set where he was up and lost control of things,” Dancer said. “So really, for him, that’s a big thing. He’s gotta stay focused. He’s got so many weapons he brings to the table when he’s dialed in and he’s focused.”

Riding high on their achievements, Illinois will return to practice and prepare to host Michigan and Michigan State at Atkins Tennis Center this weekend.